I had occasion recently to drive past the Little Rock Air Force Base. Now, to most people who live around it, driving past the base is no big deal, but as I observed the volume of traffic passing through the inlet to the Base, it brought back a memory of the first visit that I ever made to Little Rock, for a weekend job interview.
My future boss was driving, and I, of course, was lost as a goose (geographically, that is) but not about to admit it. The funny sidebar here is that my future boss was lost, too, just not quite as lost as I was. He had only been to the site we were headed toward once or twice before, and he tried a “short cut” (all right now, no fair laughing, ladies) to get there quicker.
He followed landmarks and a few signs, knowing the general direction he needed to go, and in fact was doing a pretty good job of it. If he’d continued on the road we were on, he would have gotten where we needed to be. There was just one teensy little problem. The road we were on became the main thoroughfare through the Air Force Base. I didn’t even know that there was an Air Force Base!
Now, as you with military experience know, a couple of middle-aged civilians don’t take Saturday afternoon joyrides through “closed” (non-public) Air Force bases. It just isn’t done. The nice man in the uniform felt that we should back up immediately, as a matter of fact. He didn’t even want to let us inside the gate to turn around. He did, however, give us directions to our destination, about 20 miles farther than the straight-through route.
Most Military installations are like that. Uninvited civilians are not particularly welcome, and when admitted are watched, supervised, escorted, and exited as soon as possible. I was later told that, if the boss had been retired Air Force, all he would have had to do was show his ID and drive on through.
All this made me think of how our churches react and respond to our visiting “civilian” guests. For some of us, we’ve been “inside” the church for so long that it’s nearly impossible to see things from the unchurched seeker’s perspective. In his eyes, the practices, procedures, and phrases that we are used to may make our churches seem like a strange, foreign land. We may seem to have “secret handshakes” and “passwords” that must be used to gain acceptance and “get inside.” And sad to say, there are some churches that would just as soon not have “those people” visit.
It’s interesting that some of the most successful churches in America evaluate their gatherings by deliberately trying to see them from the eye of an unchurched visitor, and they make every effort to provide a warm, friendly, “open door” atmosphere. Unfortunately, not all are so friendly.
I’m reminded of the story of a college student who was sincerely seeking God. He was brilliant, but not much for fashion. He would usually be seen wearing old, ripped jeans and a tie-dyed tee shirt, and generally was barefoot. He didn’t bathe as often as some, and usually wore the same clothes for several days at a time. One Sunday, this young man wandered in to a cushy, comfortable, upscale, and very “proper” church, just as the service was about to begin. The auditorium was quite well filled, with no seats in sight… so this young man did what he thought was reasonable and right… walked down the aisle, and pulled up a seat on the floor between the front pew and the platform. The congregation, of course, was aghast.
Then, one of the older gentlemen of the church, a long-time leader of this congregation, came walking down the aisle and approached this stranger. Many expected that the old man would chastise the young student for his irreverence, coming to church in less than proper attire, not even wearing shoes… and then, to top it all off, sitting on the floor.
Much to the surprise of many, the old man slowly approached the front, took off his jacket, kicked off his shoes, and with some difficulty sat down on the floor next to the young man. The two worshipped side-by-side, sitting on the floor together.
Now there is a man who knows why we have church in the first place. If you had been sitting in that congregation, what would you have done?